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Swellboy on… airport security

Was it the vividly checked tweed that prompted a security check?

Swellboy on… airport security

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 08 2011
Nick Foulkes

Shortly after my annual sojourn in Havana, I was required to be in New York for the Norman Mailer Gala. I serve on one or other of the boards of this charity and agreed to do so mostly on the grounds of self interest; the Norman Mailer Centre promulgates the perpetuation of the written word in the English language and gives awards to noted authors and journalists, as well as complete unknowns from the US education system who have entered the lists to compete for one or other of the college and schoool writing prizes. For me, as a producer of the written word, it is a no-brainer to assist an organisation that promotes literacy, as each person capable of deciphering the 26 symbols of our alphabet and forming them into the words in which I try to communicate my thoughts and opinions is a potential consumer.

Even so, it was a bit of a marathon; I landed back in England on Sunday morning, went home, unpacked my linen suits and guayaberas, packed my hopsacks and worsteds and the following morning headed over to Terminal Five to catch up with my old friends on the X-ray machines. There are times when passing through this most effective of modern hub terminals that Big Brother is not merely watching, but actively getting involved. Although I had stripped myself of all metallic objects and taken off my shoes, the security gate still went off and I was told that it had selected me randomly for a further test. Fair enough – I suppose that the vigorously checked tweeds I tend to wear could be used to overpower the cabin and flight deck crew, or at least distract them for long enough to allow me to seize control of the plane.

It was only when I was selected for a further check while I was boarding the aircraft that I began to get a little shirty. I was told the usual line that it was for my own safety, but when I asked how having someone rummage through my hand luggage was going to enhance my personal security, they conceded that it was in fact the American border agency that had requested the additional check.

Crikey.

I cast what remains of my mind back over my history of anti-American behaviour, which did not take long, as I do not recall having ever chained myself to the railings of any American embassy, or otherwise protested against the behaviour of our former colony; in fact, I like to think that having written a book or two about America, I feel a gratitude towards the place.

However, I did recall that on the day before I left Havana I was standing on the terrace of a very tall building that overlooked the fortress-like structure on the Malecon that serves as the de facto American Embassy. Moreover, I did take some pictures of the eagles (they looked like eagles – I am no ornithologist, but in my experience anything larger than a pheasant is usually an eagle) soaring and dipping through the air. Maybe I was spotted (I was hard to miss in my canary-yellow guayabera and two-tone shoes). So, if you are reading this Mr/Ms Homeland Security boss, please accept my assurance that I was only enjoying the view and photographing bird life.

Seeing the words I have just written, and given that I can barely tell a chaffinch from a condor, it sounds fairly flimsy, a terrible “cover” story that is further evidence of why I would make a terrible spy – unless of course my utter cluelessless is in fact some incredibly sophisticated form of treble or quadruple bluff, which it well might be, as every student of espionage knows that the real James Bond was a world-class ornithologist specialising in, yes, you guessed it, the avian life of the Caribbean. And if the ornithological nature of my cover story was not enough of a giveaway, the person rifling through may bags would have noticed that I was reading a copy of Roger Moore's autobiography (charming, by the way) in anticipation of my evening in conversation with him for the entertainment of Christie's auctioneers and its clients at a dinner in Geneva – once again a fairly far-fetched cover story. All I can say is that it is a jolly good thing the Cold War is not still on, otherwise I might have found myself writing this from an interrogation room at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia.